Clinical Director of the NW Anxiety Institute in Portland, Oregon, Kevin Ashworth, claimed that “So many teens have lost their ability to tolerate distress and uncertainty, and a big reason for that is the way we parent them.”
Ashworth spoke about the parents of the internet generation, a.k.a. iGen, Generation Z, Post-millennials, etc. But can we lay all the blame on their Generation X and Baby Boomer parents? These two generations were raised in towns and cities that were far more dangerous than they are today.
Back then, crime rates were soaring in urban areas—everything from gun violence to muggings. The rise in drug abuse wasn’t something that couldn’t be ignored either, as heroin syringes and crack pipes were familiar sights in major cities. Not to mention, the “satanic panic” of the ‘80s and round-the-clock news coverage of missing child cases. This was also when pictures of missing children were seen on milk cartons. Still today, there’s no evidence as to whether milk is to blame. (Joking.)
Being raised in this kind of environment, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see today’s parents overly concerned about their children’s safety. However, the crime wave had ended rather abruptly in the early 1990s, with crime rates plummeting all over the United States. It wasn’t merely one specific crime either, but all crime being lowered. In 2013, for example, the murder rate dropped to the same level it had been in 1953, sixty years earlier.
Unfortunately, as crime rates diminished, the fear of crime did not, and the new, paranoid parental habits started to become new national norms.
I don’t have children, nor do I plan on having children anytime soon, so why do I care about how kids today are being raised?
It is none of my business how a child is parented. Unless, of course, I happen to witness a parent physically abusing a child in public, in which case I would intervene without question, despite it still being none of my business. But why physical abuse, and not emotional or mental abuse? Well, because the latter two are harder to prove and can be argued as subjective and circumstantial. Besides that, the issue I have lies in that these children will be our future leaders one day, and if a tyrannical foreign leader declares war on us, I don’t want to hear the president crying for his mommy, or worse, give in to another country’s demands—such as Former Vice President Joe Biden.
To me, when it comes to children, abuse is abuse. Physical abuse can lead to emotional issues and abuse, emotional abuse can lead to self-inflicted abuse, and mental abuse can lead to all of the above, including physical abuse, whether self-inflicted or from fights at school. There is, however, another form of abuse that has become a new norm of western society, leaving a trail of ignored consequences far worse than what I’ve mentioned. That is, the rapid rise in the overprotection, or coddling, of American children.
Indeed times have changed, and kids have it a lot harder than we did, regarding competition, social hierarchies, and judgment from peers. The internet, social media, and every kid owning a cell phone are undeniably to blame for this, and yet, hardly anything is being done about it. This is the only thing I will agree upon in managing a child’s life: placing extreme limits on their internet and phone usage.
On the other hand, alongside crime and drugs, the fans of fear were flamed for Gen Xers and Baby Boomers with a trend in serial killings. Serial killers, such as Dahmer, Gacy, Lucas, Bundy, Berkowitz, Ramirez, and Heidnik, didn’t kill for the mob or out of passion, but methodically planned out their actions. These became household names during the 70s and 80s, and kids during those times absorbed not only their parents’ fears but had also developed their own from what they’d heard about the murders. If only given bits and pieces of the horrors that occurred, a child’s imagination can take things to an even darker place.
The kids back then now have kids of their own and have not forgotten how fearful they and their parents had been during those times. This is something to consider as to why parents are going to such overtly nonsensical lengths to protect their children. But then, serial killers weren’t a thing anymore. It makes me wonder if there were such killers, or more like false flags perpetrated by the media to create the mass fear that causes the coddling we see today.
Growing up in the 90s, there sat a massive desktop within nearly every household, most with internet capabilities. There were no social media outlets outside of chat forums and AOL Instant Messenger, which was great when you needed answers to your homework assignments. Before the creation of Napster, the internet was primarily used to chat with your peers, looking up gaming cheats and guitar tabs, all while running with a blazingly fast 56k dial-up modem.
Back then, parents didn’t have to force us to go out and play; they had to force us to come back in. Going outside was our escape from parents and adults and our entrance into the wild imagination of the (semi-)unknown. Before high school, social hierarchies didn’t determine who your friends were; your neighborhood did. Anyone who lived within a mile radius of our house was part of your group of friends. Many rode bikes; some preferred to walk, while the rest skateboarded everywhere.
The streets, the “woods,” the tunnels, the creek beds, the entire world (in walking distance) was ours, as long as we were home by the time the street lamps came on. But sneaking out afterward on the weekends where there wasn’t school the following day was always the most exciting. We were the neighborhood kids, and all looked out for each other. If one was hurt, we took care of it while another ran to grab a parent. It was often brushed off and forgotten about until mom notices it and nearly has a stroke.
I remember one incident when there wasn’t anyone there to help. I had fractured my wrist snowboarding while my group didn’t wasn’t paying attention and sped off. Rather than sitting there in the cold, waiting for a parent that wasn’t coming to my rescue, I knew what I had to do. I got back on my board and rode down the rest of the mountain without a glove covering my throbbing wrist. By the time I’d made it down where I could get medical attention, my hand was so numb I couldn’t feel the pain anymore. I was told it was “stupid” and “crazy,” but I’d gained confidence in myself that day, knowing I didn’t need anyone to come to my aid–I could, in a sense, take care of myself.
Whatever happened to the saying, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?” Today, it almost seems like it has deteriorated into “if it can hurt you, mommy and daddy will make sure that it won’t.”
In his book, “12 Rules for Life,” Jordan Peterson states the eleventh rule: “Do not bother the children when they are skateboarding,” he uses a similar example to make his point. Yes, kids who skateboard tend to be the “outsiders” or of a rebellious nature, but they accomplish more than any other kid who sits at home playing video games. They are learning to push themselves, figuring out how much potential they have, gaining confidence in themselves, and all while being social with their peers. Most importantly, they learn how to get back up after they fall, to keep trying again and again without fear until a task is mastered.
This is what Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to as “Antifragility,” in how systems and people can survive the stressors and conflicts in life, and like the immune system, will grow stronger as a result. He explains how some things, such as china teacups, are fragile, breaking easily and not being able to heal themselves, so they must be handled gently. Other things are resilient and can withstand sudden shocks but don’t benefit from falling. The last group, he explains, are antifragile, such as many of the critical systems in economic and political life that are similar to the immune system. They require stressors and challenges to learn, adapt, and grow. When antifragile things aren’t experienced with challenges, like muscles and bones, they atrophy and become weak, rigid, and inefficient.
He opens his book with a poetic image that should speak to all parents: the wind extinguishes a candle but energizes a fire. He advises not to be like candles and not turn our children into candles: “You want to be the fire and wish for the wind.”
If you genuinely care about your children and want to see them grow up, have a family, and be happy, providing them with safe spaces and protecting them from any pain and conflict will only prevent them from developing into mentally and emotionally strong, able adults. While continuing to raise them in a micromanaged, coddled place of safety may indeed come from a place of love and concern, it will ultimately do them more harm in the long run. They are being robbed of a crucial stage for their development that provides them the tools to become self-sufficient adults who can function in society without mommy and daddy.
Risks and stressors are natural, unavoidable parts of life. Parents and teachers should be helping kids learn and develop their innate abilities to grow and learn from such experiences.
“Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.” when the parent can no longer clear the road of conflict, the child won’t know what to do, other than cry themselves into a state of depression, on the verge of becoming another contributor to the sudden rise in suicide statistics.
“This is the tragedy of modernity: as with neurotically overprotective parents, those trying to help are often hurting us the most.”
― Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder